The technology may be new but the goal is eternal: Get verifiable visuals and eyewitness accounts as quickly as possible when news breaks.
The AP accomplished just that after a Metro-North commuter train careened off the rails – thanks to fast and smart work by Caleb Jones of the Nerve Center, who harnessed social media to help AP tell the story of the deadly accident with photos, video, sound and text. Call it electronic shoe leather. Caleb tracked down sources and verified that they were who they said they were and had seen what they said they saw. He did it all with accuracy and speed.
First word of the Bronx derailment came shortly after the 7:20 a.m. incident, when Photos’ David Boe alerted the Nerve Center to a call from a former AP staffer who had heard scanner traffic. Jones first alerted the East Desk, then launched a search of social media.
He found that two nearby residents had posted pictures, and sent out Twitter messages to both: “Hello. Are you on the scene? Are you available to speak with The Associated Press?”
The first to respond, Rebecca Schwartz, did not have usable photos; Jones passed her along to the East Desk, and she provided the first eyewitness account of the derailment’s aftermath.
“You could see multiple train cars off of the rails, including one train car – I couldn’t tell from where I was whether it was right into the water or just out of the water,” she said.
Edwin Valero had posted a better photo, but the accident scene, as shot from his apartment window, was still largely obscured by trees. Jones asked him if he had more, and he did – from a better location on a nearby bridge.
The train, all of its eight cars knocked from the tracks, had stopped just short of the water. (Original eyewitness reports said cars appeared to be in the water, and that was corrected based in part on Valero’s photos). Strewn about like playthings, some of the cars were thrown on to their sides, trapping passengers until rescuers could pull them free.
Still, Jones wanted more. He asked Valero if he could safely return to his perch to shoot video, and he did. Valero’s subsequent interview with AP Radio also provided quotes for text and TV, and the video scenes he shot with his iPhone were used in the AP package.
Valero’s signature’s shot of the wreckage in the shape of a giant question mark led the AP coverage and was the most widely used image across online media from morning into the night, displayed prominently by The New York Times, the New York Post, The Boston Globe and The Guardian and other outlets even after news organizations had their own shooters in the Bronx.
And it provided the AP with crucial information before its reporters could get to the scene.
Said East Regional Editor Karen Testa: Caleb’s work “was extraordinary in securing compelling images that not only told the story visually but helped ensure we were accurate in describing the wreckage before we had boots on the ground.”
For his intrepid and determined use of social media, which put the AP ahead on a breaking story of wide interest, Caleb Jones wins this week’s $500 prize.